Category Archives: Dogs

The Ill-Planned Grand Tour Part IX: The Final Chapter

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Renvyle sunrise

One of the advantages of being married to a Communication professor is that Z is a great communicator himself and an excellent interpreter and facilitator of other people’s communication. He’s not exactly psychic, but it’s close. I’ve never figured out exactly what he sees in my face or hears in my tone when I say, “Sure, we can have lunch at Jimmy Johns” but he seems to know by some bat of an eye or lower decibel to my voice that I’d rather eat almost anything than to eat one more Turkey Slim #4. We don’t argue. We never have to worry about going to bed mad because we aren’t ever mad at each other. (Hopefully, by writing this, I’m not jinxing us.) Our biggest sin against each other is the occasional loud sigh or growl when, say, I have to push in drawers he’s left open, or, say, when I insist I’m ready to go and then he has to wait another ten minutes while I look for my phone, my billfold, my shoes, my hat, my gloves, no-not-these-gloves-the-other-gloves before I’ll walk out the door. Home for us is peaceful and supportive (if not messy, with all the open drawers and cast-off gloves), and I feel lucky that we work like this.

 

Plus, it turns out if you aren’t hollering at each other all the time, it frees us up to talk about other things, like books or politics or current events or, a subject we spend a lot of time on that we like to call “what do you want for dinner? I don’t care. what do you want for dinner?”

 

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Grotto, Kylemore Abbey

When we started planning our Grand Tour last spring, it was fun and easy. One of us would toss up an idea and the other would say, “Sure! Why not!” And then it was time to plan Ireland. Suddenly he was looking at photos of cottages on HomeAway and getting figures for twelve-day stays, though he’d never been in Ireland and I had been there seven times. He wasn’t picking up on my “non-verbals” or maybe he was ignoring them. For weeks, he kept looking at one cottage in particular that was too close to Galway for my liking. (If I’m going to be close to Galway then I want to be IN Galway, not Galway adjacent, even if the cottage itself was adorable.) I felt frustrated that he wasn’t just handing the Irish reigns over to me since I was the expert and simultaneously like a spoiled only-child for wanting it exactly how I wanted it. As I remember it, there was no actual growling at each other, but I’d feel my eye twitch whenever he’d start poking around online looking for lodging and I knew he was about to turn my idea of our magical trip to Ireland into a lengthy stay in a holiday home that we could just as easily have had in the Pacific Northwest.

 

Finally, because he’s clever with the communicating, we talked about it, and because he’s reasonable, I didn’t have to purse my lips or go silent, as is my inclination. He compromised on the length we would stay in a cottage and where we would stay, and I struck the Dingle Peninsula, County Clare, and the Aran Islands off of my “must do” list. There was a certain reasonable-ness to his request that we spend more time in one place and not be constantly on the go that I had to agree with. Plus, if the cottage was a dud, I’d be out nothing myself having been to all of the places before and he wouldn’t know what he was missing anyhow.

 

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Ashleigh Falls, Connemara

As we leave Inishbofin for the last leg of this grand tour, I’m indifferent. Sea for Miles, the house we’ve rented in Renvyle, looks lovely in the photos and I’m sure we’ll have a nice time there, but it is Z’s dream of what he wants to do, not my dream of what I want him to do. Instead of the cottage, I have my sights set on the last Irish hurrah, our two nights with my cousin Mary and family, and a party across the road at my cousin Gerry’s. Sea for Miles will be fine, but I’m not getting my hopes up: HomeAway photos can be taken at deceptive angles with beauty-enhancing filters, and sometimes you find yourself in a cracker box that smells of someone else’s life.

 

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Kylemore Abbey

We load up the Galway Hooker, which was unmolested by man or donkey in our absence, and head north. Because I have a very Midwestern sense of space, I once again imagine we’ll be in the car for hours, but in about twenty minutes we’ve arrived at Tully Cross, which is our turn-off for the cottage. It’s too early to check in, so I suggest we drive further down the road to see Kylemore Abbey, a beautiful Benedictine Abbey that was originally a private stately home, built in the 1870s at the foot of Dúchruach Mountain, a spot where legend has it that the folk hero giants Fionn mac Cumhaill and Cú Chulainn once fought, tossing stones at each other.

 

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Kylemore Abbey church

I’ve been to Kylemore Abbey multiple times and though I love the way it looks from afar, the throngs of tourists lumbering out of tour busses always puts me off. Plus I go into full-on Irish Republican mode and get indignant about the Big Houses of Ireland oppressing the people yadda yadda yadda, as if it is still the early 1900s and I’m a scullery maid whose boyfriend is about to die fighting the long arm of colonialism. On this visit with Z though, it is so early in the morning that the tour buses haven’t rolled in yet. A mist hangs down from the mountains, and it feels as if we have the whole place to ourselves.

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Kylemore Abbey church interior

Since my last visit, the house is no longer a girls’ school and is in a bit of a transitional phase, but it has never looked lovelier. Because we aren’t being pushed and rushed by tourists on a schedule, I get to read all of the signs in the big house, admire the treasures therein, meander around the Victorian garden that is being restored to its original splendor, and saunter up the path to the miniature Gothic cathedral that the original owner had built when his wife died suddenly from malaria.

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Shamrock stonework inside the church

From the literature we’re handed with our tickets, I learn how much Mitchell Henry loved his wife, how much they loved their tenants, how much their guests loved visiting this splendid house, and later in its history after the Benedictine nuns turned it into a school, how much the girls who were students loved their time there. For the first time in 15 years’ worth of visits, the Abbey seems like a warm, happy place instead of a Brontë-esque misery.

 

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Kylemore Abbey Victorian Garden and Head Gardener’s House

After lunch and a gift shop stop, we wend our way back towards Tully Cross, through Tully itself, and along the coast as we look for Sea for Miles. The mountain range, called the Twelve Bens and Connemara National Park are in the background, and though we don’t see it, I know that Inishbofin is just around the bend in the road. When we spy the two-story castle ruin—again said to have been one of the pirate queen Grace O’Malley’s–we know we’re near our destination. Sea for Miles is not so much a cottage as a house, and it is fabulous. The owner built it as her own home but is currently teaching in Abu Dhabi while family members and a tenant in a small space where the garage would be watch after the property. It’s clear that the house is well-loved and cared for, as are the guests who stay there.

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Our home away from home

 

As soon as we walk in and see the three bedrooms, the gorgeous views, and the fresh hydrangeas that have been cut just for us, we feel disappointed that we didn’t invite someone to come along with us and share the bounty. Big picture windows in the living room and dining room look out at the Atlantic as it crashes against the coast. We can see neighboring Connemara ponies, the mountains in the distance, and later, when the sun starts to set, it hits the chapel at the top of Croagh Patrick, the mountain in County Mayo where pilgrims climb—sometimes barefoot—if they can work their way around the throngs of health nuts who race up and down the dangerous mountain using it as their personal training ground.

 

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A kitchen big enough for us to live in.

The owner’s mother comes over to greet us and we stand in the kitchen chatting, less about the workings of the house and more about the family and the weather and the beauty. She seems so nice and the view is so lovely that I feel badly that her daughter, Debbie, is living in Abu Dhabi instead of in her own house, though lucky for us that she is. Her mother gives me the sad news that Mrs. Murray on Inishbofin has died and reports that she saw the helicopter hovering over the island to either pick her up or to return her body, she’s not sure which. Though I’m sad for Mrs. Murray’s passing, I’m glad I am hearing the news when it is fresh and while I am in Ireland instead of reading about it three years from now online.

 

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Our neighbors, the Connemara ponies

Even though the house is lovely, I’m still not quite ready to concede that Z’s plan is a winner. I wonder if we’ll get bored over the next few days, sitting out here in the back of beyond. I gather up a stack of books from Debbie’s shelves and scan them. I jot some notes down for a blog. Z (ever hopeful that I’ll turn into the productive writer I sold myself as when he married me) sets up the ironing born at desk height in front of the living room window so I’ll have a place to write with a view. I like the idea of writing there daily and maybe doing a watercolor sketch, but I also feel as if I should be soaking in the views for later instead of sticking my nose into my computer. It’s a regular struggle with me. I write a blog, I paint a picture, I read half a book about Nell McCafferty, but mostly, when we are in the house, I stare out the window and think about what a lucky place this would be to live.

 

We unpack our bags and then walk down to the beach, hop on rocks and listen to the waves. We walk around Grace O’Malley’s tower and wonder at the 16th century engineering. The thickness of the walls is considerable, and we can just make out where the stairs would have been. I try to imagine the landscape Grace would have been seeing from her tower before there was the smattering of houses and barns, though it’s likely her eye was always trained on the sea.

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Living room view and neighbor.

 

While we’re in Renvyle, we drive through Connemara, visit Killary Harbor—a fjord where there is some controversial salmon farming taking place, we have picnics on the beach, and go on little errands into Tully Cross to buy groceries and stamps. On one of these trips, the post mistress asks where we’re staying and because I can’t remember Debbie’s name or the name of the house, I tell her I can’t remember but the owner is teaching in Abu Dhabi. “Oh, that’ll be Debbie’s place. Isn’t the view there lovely!” I’ve no idea why my heart quickens at this level of familiarity—that at home would no doubt make be feel completely spied upon and invaded, someone knowing my whereabouts or that my house is sitting empty while I’m on the other side of the world—but here it feels charming, and I love the connection, love that for these few days I have a (tenuous) connection to this place.

 

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Killary Harbor

In the evenings, Z cooks dinner and I clean up, realizing how much less cranky I am about my job when there is a dishwasher, a view, and the kitchen in question isn’t the size of half a postage stamp. We watch the sun until it sets and then turn on the TV, watch the news, some non-American TV, talk about the day.

On this trip, the Syrian refugee crisis that is on both the UK and Irish news every night is often a topic of discussion. While we’d been in London, the situation seemed particularly dire to me because the city already felt too crowded, yet the numbers of people pressing themselves against the safer borders of Western Europe had grown to critical mass. Over the course of the trip, we’ve spent a lot of time discussing the crisis, the impact it might have on Europe, and as I watch the disproportionate number of males to females headed west, I also worry about the women, when so many of the refugees appear to be mail. Plus, because Z and I have been dealing legally with the extensive hoops one must leap through to become a permanent resident in the U.S., my feelings about those who arrive in the country without following regular channels are complex and conflicted. When we turn the news off to watch Stephen Frye host the celebrity quiz show QI every night, it is a relief, but the day’s footage of refugees angry or terrified about their plight, still plays in my mind. It seems ludicrous that we can be enjoying our holiday when other people are so miserable.

 

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Near Killary Harbor

While Z and I are in this part of the world, I determine that he needs to see Doolough Pass. As we drive there, Z has to keep his eye firmly on the twisty road that hugs the water and is more likely to produce oncoming traffic in the form of sheep than car.

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Rush hour on the open road.

Though it is a sunny day as we make our way through the valley, there is something ominous about the way the rocky hills around us hug the water. It is a picturesque piece of the country but it feels desolate even as the sunlight plays off the mountains and water. Doolough, which means “black lake,” feels haunted. The first time I visited in 2001, I felt the sadness even before I knew about one of the more tragic Famine stories that happened here in 1849. Aside from the haunting, it is also magnetic. I have yet to make a trip to Connemara wherein I don’t feel an urge to make a pilgrimage to this spot.

 

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Doolough

The Famine itself—caused by both a blight on the potato crop (the staple meal of 90% of the Irish in this region) and by bad, colonial politics—left an estimated million Irish people dead and another million as emigrants. Because the powers that be didn’t want to hand out food relief to the undeserving, they required those who had less than a quarter acre of land on which to feed themselves, to come to Louisburgh for “inspection” to determine their suitability for assistance. However, when the already starving and tattered group got to Louisburgh, the men who were supposed to evaluate their need, had gone to Delphi Lodge, 12 miles to the south. The miserable crowd was instructed to get themselves to Delphi by the next morning. On the grueling walk there, people died along the road. It was cold, rainy, and the river was at flood level. When they did arrive in Delphi, they had to wait outside while those in charge finished their lunch before the relief would be distributed. Only the relief was not distributed and the group of people—in some estimates, over 400 men, women, and children—were sent back to Louisburgh with no promise of food, clothing, or aid of any kind. On the walk back, the storm kicked up and many of these people died—blown from cliffs, drowned in the lake, or they simply dropped from starvation. The number who died on this pointless journey varies wildly from 20 to 400, but regardless of the number, it had to have been a harrowing sight. Those who died were buried without ceremony in unmarked graves where they fell.

 

There are two markers here now to commemorate this tragedy, one of which has a quote from Gandhi: “How can men feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings?” Z and I stand at the other, plainer marker and take in the view, which is beautiful, but too horrible to enjoy. He says he feels a melancholy sensation here, but admits he isn’t sure if it’s because I’ve told him the story or if it’s something in the air. I wish I’d kept my mouth shut and just brought him here to see if he picked up on it, my own Zimbabwean ghost detector. I stand looking at the water and think about those huddled masses of people, making their way not once but twice through this valley, and I feel some shame that I can so easily churn up emotion for people whose suffering ended over a century and a half ago, but when we turn on the TV and I see the refugees, I allow myself to think pragmatically instead of compassionately. Though I want to say, “Yes, but these people who were so badly treated all those years ago were my people” I can’t come up with a good argument as to why they seem any more “mine” than people who are on the planet at this same moment as me, pushed out of their homeland by politics and hatred.

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It’s a relief to leave Doolough and its sadness, as we head back towards our temporary home in Renvyle. We stop at the grocery and fill the cart with more food than we have days left in Ireland to eat it. I’m mad for the Tayto crisps.

 

The next morning, I wake early and watch the sun come up, casting the mountains in silhouette for a time. I wonder what it would be like to wake every morning with a view like this instead of 9th Avenue and the sirens and yapping neighbor dogs and people hollering on the uneven sidewalk in front of our building. I’m overcome with a sense of friendly envy of the poets Ted and Annie Deppe, who taught my MFA summer residency in Ireland six years earlier and who have arranged their lives so they are able to live in Ireland full-time. I don’t know them well or where they are living in Ireland, but I’m compelled to send Annie a message on Facebook telling her that I’m looking out at the Atlantic in Connemara and feeling jealous of her life. Within minutes, I get a message back saying that she’s just looked at the photos I posted the day before and she’s sure that Z and I are staying not far from where she and Ted have been living. We agree to meet that evening for a drink. Ireland delivers more of it’s magic.

 

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View from Sea for Miles

Z and I spend our last full day in Renvyle hiking the least vigorous of the trails at the nearby Connemara National Park. On the way, we meet a cow that is rare and one of the oldest Celtic breeds in Ireland. It looks surprising like. . . a cow.

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Irish Moiled Cow and friend

We look at wildflowers and heather. I complain about steep inclines while Z waits patiently for me to catch my breath. I huff and puff and glower at the younger, fitter folks who are zipping past us to trek the steeper incline. When we reach the summit of our particular trail, it feels like all of Ireland is stretched out in front of us. I’m reminded of the cover of my old copy of The Fellowship of the Ring, as we look down on the patchwork quilt of fields and hills and sea. It is beautiful and hard to imagine there is any strife here or anywhere else.

 

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View from Connemara National Park

That evening, we sip pints with the Deppes at Paddy Coyne’s pub in Tully, and talk about their life in Ireland, my alma mater, writing, and Hugo Hamilton’s novel about Nuala O’Faolain (which I become obsessed with getting in the remaining few days in Ireland, sure I’ll never find a copy in the U.S.). Ted is a fellow Hoosier and both he and Annie went to Earlham, so we also talk of “home.” It’s a delightful evening. I love being in this pub with people I actually know instead of as an outside observer whose soul purpose is to watch the locals in action. It feels as if we nearly belong right where we are.

 

Later, while Z and I start packing up at Sea for Miles, it’s hard to remember that  I  thought our time in Renvyle would be a waste, that I was just humoring Z. I love Kerry, the Dingle Peninsula, the lunar-landscape of the Burren, and rocky isolation of the Aran Islands, but now I’m glad I didn’t try to force my own itinerary in lieu of this respite. We both agree that Renvyle—and if available, Sea for Miles—will be on our “must do” list on future trips to Ireland.

(I can’t tell you what it does to me to hear Z refer to our future trips to Ireland!)

 

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Rainy road to Westport

The next morning we leave Renvyle and make the long, soggy drive to my cousins in Caherlistrane by way of a lunch stop in Westport. I remember Westport as a picturesque little town built around a meandering creek with a be-flowered stone bridge that I’ve always wanted to return to, but when we get there, it is raining so hard that even Seattleites are put off. We spend a leisurely lunch in a pub writing postcards, that later, I will leave on a shelf in a bookstore, so excited am I to see the Hugo Hamilton novel. (The postcards have, as yet, not been sent by a well-meaning passerby who finds them. But we’re still holding out hope. If you didn’t get a postcard from us, this is why!) We try walking around Westport, but it is a miserable day and I just want to be home, though I’m not sure what I mean by that word: with my cousins? back in Renvyle? on Inishbofin? at Petra House with Frank and Joan? Across the Irish Seat at July’s cozy digs? At the hotel in Kensington? We’ve been gone nearly a month, so the likeliest answer is Seattle, but as on all of my other trips to Ireland, the thought of leaving makes me sad. I will never be a person who travels exotically (I don’t think Zimbabwe counts if you are married to a Zimbabwean), but when I do travel, I’m always focused on the “what’s next” instead of the “how soon can we head back?”

 

The remaining two days zip by in a flash. The family entertains us, feeds us, plies us with drink, and makes us feel like royalty. It is good to see everyone again, including my grandfather’s first cousin, Kathleen, and her husband, Tom, who first hosted me all those years ago when their grandchildren—now adults—were introducing me to cows and the delights of Crunchie candy bars. The last baby, born not long before my arrival on that first solo trip all those years ago, has her 16th birthday party our last night here, and I am amazed at how quickly time has passed.

 

More drink is taken.

 

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Ashford Castle–I’m _sure_ I can prove this is the family estate.

The day before we leave, Mary drives us to Ashford Castle—a gorgeous Anglo-Norman turreted creation—and we walk the grounds, see the falcons  from the falconry school, walk the various gardens, look out across Lough Corrib, and speculate as to whether the Burkes in my family tree (and Mary’s) are related to the de Burgos (which over time become Burke) who built and lived in the caste for a few hundred years beginning in the 13th century.

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Lough Corrib, Ashford Castle wall

My brain begins building a case that relies on this key piece of evidence as to why I’ve always felt a tiara is my God-given right. Now Ashford is considered the premiere castle in Ireland and has hosted various Hollywood royalty as well as Prince Edward and Princess Grace. The majority of its guests now are Americans (rich ones) and the majority of those are from California. We are not rich and therefore are not allowed inside—stone dogs guard the door. We pay for the privilege of walking on the grounds–where parts of John Wayne’s The Quiet Man were filmed– and it truly is a beautiful piece of real estate.

 

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Beware of dog

I’m more interested, however, in the real estate where my cousins both live because their grandfather was my great-grandmother’s older brother who farmed that land, and Grandma Bridget and her brother grew up there, as did their father. I love looking out across the fields, at the old stone walls, at the flowers and imagining that this is what Grandma Bridget saw, speculating about how difficult it must have been to leave when she knew it would be nearly impossible to come back from America with any regularity. I always wonder at her decision to emigrate: did she feel like it was a choice or a necessity? Was she afraid, with only a black-thorn walking stick to protect her on that trip across the Atlantic? She wasn’t a refugee—most of her siblings and the aunt with whom she would live were waiting on the other side—but for me, making that sort of choice to put that much distance between myself and home before there were trans-Atlantic flights would have been a misery.

 

Kathleen hands me a stack of letters that her sister Patricia—whom I met once before she died and who was the family historian—saved. They are from the American cousins and their children. Some of the letters are written by cousins I know, others are those I’ve only heard of who died before I was born. One is from my grandfather and I get tears in my eyes when I see his elegant, familiar penmanship. (In the letter, he offers information about his children and grandchildren, and I smile wryly as I see the only description next to my name: “single.”) Most of the letters from America spend an inordinate amount of time talking about the weather, which seems a shame, until it dawns on me that what the writer is really trying to do is keep open that line of communication “back home.” Kathleen once told me—when speaking of her husband whose numerous siblings all emigrated—“You lived and died by the post. It was a lifeline to family.”

 

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The Great Grandmotherland, near Caherlistrane

And then it’s time for us to leave. Z’s first trip to Ireland is winding down. Mary and John drive us to Shannon where we say our goodbyes and then spend the night in a personality-free airport hotel before our early morning flight back to London, and from there, we’ll fly back to Seattle. Our whole grand tour is about to unwind itself and soon we’ll be lugging our ever-multiplying baggage up First Hill. I’m like a mad woman in the airport gift shop, trying to stuff the last little bits of Ireland into my already bulging carry-on and coat pockets, greedy to hang on to what has been, with no question, the best trip of my life.

 

My favorite of the letters that Kathleen shared with me the day before is from Sister Mary Baptiste, my grandpa’s first cousin, whose name was always spoken with reverence because of her vocation. In her careful penmanship, she describes in detail the changes that have come with Vatican II and how now she and her fellow nuns can drive cars because they no longer have the big, vision-shielding wings on their habits. There is joy in her description of the freedom that has been afforded her, and I imagine, joy at the promise of the open road.

 

 

 

The Ill-Planned Grand Tour, Part VI: A Little Irish Anxiety

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Before Z, there were other loves. Z and I do not speak their names because he is a jealous husband in the best kind of way, and though I am perhaps more curious, he knows at heart that I am wickedly jealous myself. He is a Scorpio (“jealous” being one of the main descriptors in your better astrology books) and I have a Scorpio Rising and a Scorpio Moon (“double jealous,” I guess), so it is an arrangement—burying our heads ostrich-style to the pre- Beth & Z past—that works well for us. It probably works best for me because Z does not write personal essays or keep a blog where he occasionally feels an urge to mention some former object of his affection. He is also not confessional by nature, whereas I, well…you’ve read me. I might not tell you all my details over lunch, but somewhere, they are being typed into an essay or post.

 

There is one photo of him going to a formal dance in high school with, he tells me, “a family friend”, and I’ll admit it, I hate that girl whenever I see that photo. She’s probably a lovely person and could now, easily be my daughter, but I can’t help myself. (Frankly, when he tells the story about the six-year-old twins who used to fight over who got to carry his school bag when he was in first grade, I don’t much like them either.) So I’m not really sure how Z handles it when I accidentally mention an apartment in Chicago I used to frequent in my twenties where my art-student boyfriend lived or how Z felt the night we watched a documentary about the famous-ish brother of my high school boyfriend, and there, in the middle of the show, said boyfriend appears looking uncomfortable in front of the camera, staring through dark sunglasses right into our living room.

 

Irish Ferries Club Class which looks the way I imagined the Love Boat's Lido Deck.

Irish Ferries Club Class which looks the way I imagined the Love Boat’s Lido Deck.

But this is all old news. Z and I are all about being in the present moment, and the present moment has Ireland on the horizon. As Z and I board the ferry in Holyhead and the horn sounds as our three-and-a-half-hour journey across the Irish Sea commences, I have butterflies in my stomach. My palms are sweaty. I get ratty with Z while we try to find the Club Class area that we paid extra for so we’d have free wi-fi and complimentary snacks. Z looks at me bewildered. We’ve had a lovely trip so far in England and Wales with none of the tiffs or dramas other couples might expect, and we’re about to start the last two-week leg of it—the part certain to be the best from my Irish-American perspective—and I’ve turned into a shrew. I bark at him as he (ineptly, I think) reads the ship map to try to locate this Brigadoon of spaces on the ferry, a place no elevator nor staircase seems to want to take us. I stomp around. Roll my eyes. Huff. We can’t get to Ireland fast enough and somehow it seems he is impeding our progress, even though he is not piloting the ferry. In the end, his “inept” reading is correct and he ushers me into the quiet, sparsely populated club room, and we settle into a comfy booth at the front where a vast bank of windows gives the impression that we are at the world’s best drive-in movie. I take a few deep breaths. It doesn’t take long into our three-and-a-half hour journey before a grey silhouette of Ireland comes into view. My eyes fill.

 

I met Ireland for the first time when I was 32. My college friend, Anaïs, and I booked a week there without knowing much about it other than we both had some vague family ties there, both listened to U2 and Sinéad O’Connor, and had read Ulysses together in a college Modernism class, taught by a bore of professor who refused to let us read any female writers because he didn’t believe any women had written anything worthy of being studied. We also both liked the idea of Guinness. At the time, I’d recently begun writing letters to my paternal grandfather’s first cousins in County Galway who farmed the land where my great grandmother grew up, and the only real itinerary Anaïs and I had, other than a vague plan to go to Dublin and Belfast–the only names on the map we really knew–was to get ourselves to Galway to meet my kin.

 

I don’t know when I fell in love with the place exactly—whether it was love at first sight or if it took a couple of days, the whole week. Nor do I remember the catalyst: did the light hit it just right when we were riding on a bumpy bus through Connemara or was it the smell of my first peat fire or the sound of the voices? Regardless, I fell deeply, madly in love with the place. I’d spent the whole of my adult life thinking what was missing was the perfect boyfriend or an acclaimed writing career, but what had actually been missing was an entire country where for whatever reason, I felt most myself. On that first visit, I stood in the ivy-covered quadrangle at the national university in Galway and vowed that I’d take classes there, and two years later, I did: studying Irish poetry, scribbling  some halting poems of my own, but mostly, loving Ireland up. Two years after that, I brought my half-brother over to celebrate his 21st birthday, then my mother, then I attended a writing workshop at a haunted castle, a spring break with my friend Belle, and so on.

 

I was hooked, body and soul. I studied the history, read the literature, taught classes on it, carried Edna O’Brien’s suitcase through the Denver airport after an Irish-themed writing festival in Aspen and thought—all the while trying to make clever conversation with her—“this suitcase is going to Ireland”(only it wasn’t: Edna O’Brien lives in London). The only way I could talk about Ireland was with the over-exuberant language of the infatuated, which shamed me because it made me seem like just another American with an idea of Ireland in her mind (leprechauns and rainbows and Aran knit sweaters) who could just as easily be talking about any vacation destination. Like a teenager whose parents believe she just has a crush, I wanted to stamp my foot and shout, but you don’t understand—this is real! Even so, if I heard a commercial for the Irish tourism board come on, I stopped what I was doing and stared at the television, haunted that it was playing “our” song by the Cranberries. I listened to heart-wrenching Celtic music and wept for no real reason. I refused to wear any perfume but the sweet Irish lavender I special ordered, and every day when I dabbed it on, I’d be transported to what felt like the life I should have been living.

Irish Ferries ferry

Irish Ferries ferry

As Z and I watch Ireland get closer—stuffing our faces full of free fruit, muffins, and Jacobson’s crackers—I am conflicted. On the one hand, I cannot wait to be reunited with my beloved. On the other, Z is my beloved now, and I am afraid he will not share my affection, will not like the idea of Ireland as a sort of sister-wife in our marriage, afraid he will point out all the ways it is sub-par (the showers are almost always more complicated than they need to be for starters), afraid he’ll see me differently after meeting the place: who is this woman with the irrational obsession with a somewhat grey and rainy landscape?

 

And also, my last tryst with Ireland was not my best. Six months before Z and I got married, I spent a summer residency for my MFA program in Dingle. I was without my normal klatch of friends and with, instead, a group of people I didn’t know. I’d just said goodbye to Z for the entire summer, and I was so homesick for him that every morning in the half-light before workshops started, I’d walk half a mile to a phone box to call him in Zimbabwe for a few minutes just to help me get through the day. Furthermore, though I kept it to myself, I was having issues with shortness of breath and vague chest pains that I now know from a slightly disgruntled nurse were not “mini heart attacks” but panic attacks about the impending nuptials and move across country. In other words, I was not fully present for Ireland, and Ireland knew it. After the residency, I met my cousin and her daughter at the Shannon Airport to introduce them to the country I loved, but something was off. None of us were as bouncy and excited as I imagined we’d be, swilling Guinness at trad sessions, traipsing through monastery ruins, standing over the bones of our great great grandpeople. We were glad to be together, but we all had our own internal wars being waged though on the surface, all was well.

 

I was relieved to get back to America after that last trip, and I don’t even remember saying a proper goodbye to Ireland or any promises to return soon. The best I can compare it to is a romance that you know is faltering and you aren’t sure if it is worth fighting for or if it should just become a shoebox full of memories. Maybe my time with Ireland was over. Maybe my head had been turned too much by Z, by the mystery of Zimbabwe that was now on my radar.

Dublin from the Irish Sea

Dublin from the Irish Sea

As Dublin gets closer, Z squints and says, “But where are all the buildings?” A week ago, we were in London with a skyline so bizarre and full of both tall buildings and cranes making more tall buildings, that Dublin’s low-to-the-ground profile must be a surprise to him, and I feel instantly defensive of it, but also disappointed that it is disappointing him before we’ve even landed. The only thing we can really see are the twin smokestacks of the Poolbeg power station, but already my brain is seeing the Liffey as it moves through the docklands and goes under O’Connell Street, the country as it stretches west towards the place that is always my destination: Connemara. My gut clenches. If Z is disappointed before we’ve gotten off the ferry, how is he going to feel about the rural bits I love where there is nothing much but sheep, rocks, a pub, and the random “Up Galway” banner? I send a sort of prayer across the remaining expanse of water directly to Ireland: Please be good to Z, I implore. I need for him to love you a little. For me, that is what is on the line here: if we have a bad time, if Z does not take a fancy to Ireland, this could conceivably be my last trip to a place that has felt like my heart’s home for nearly twenty years.

 

When the ferry docks, it takes forever for us to be let us off the ship, and the anticipation and anxiety builds. Finally, we work our way through customs, as usual, a process that is quicker for me with my U.S. passport than it is for Z with his Zimbabwean one but even so, within fifteen minutes we’ve gotten our passports stamped, our luggage collected, and a taxi hailed. I sit forward and peer out the window, like some kind of over-eager Labrador retriever. As the cab moves through the docklands, I look for the spot where ten years ago Mom and I walked in the dark of the night with a Swedish woman we’d just met to U2’s recording studio; this unlikely trio of groupies stood outside until nearly midnight, hoping to get a look at the band. We heard them recording songs for the next album, saw Bono’s wife drop someone off (not Bono), and caught a glimpse of the top of Edge’s knit cap when he stuck his hat out the door, but that was the extent of that night’s adventure. Now, the docklands look quite different. They seem more vertical than the last time I was here, less tatty. As we move into the city center, I have to ask the cabbie the name of the two new bridges that are crossing the Liffey: one, the Samuel Beckett Bridge, which is lovely in that it looks like a harp but strikes me as something a little too Irish for Beckett himself to approve of, and the Rosie Hackett Bridge, which is named for the founder of the Irish Women Workers Union and which pleases me more even though the bridge itself is no work of art. Z peers out the window; it’s all new to him.

 

I ask the cabbie, “What else has changed in Dublin in the last six years?” (How can six years have passed since I was here?). He sighs at the traffic jam we’re tangled in because the semi-final for the Gaelic football game just ended in a draw—fans pour into the street, most wearing Dublin’s light blue, but a few in the red and green jerseys of Mayo, both sides celebrating, sure their team will win the re-match in a week—and he chuckles, “Nothing much.” The Angelus bells start to play on the radio, which he turns up and we sit quietly there in traffic, penitently waiting as each bell strikes, despite the cacophony outside the cab as the revelers revel. After the last bell chimes, he turns the radio back down and explains that he’s going a roundabout way to our hotel to try to get through the crowd, and it pleases me that I am familiar enough with this little hunk of the city to know he’s not padding the fair and is getting us there as best he can.

The Liffey

The Liffey

Our hotel sits on Bachelor’s Row, just across from the River Liffey, and the city tugs at me before we’ve ever checked into our hotel. In the mere day and a half we have in Dublin, I’ll drag Z to my favorite spots—touristy, all, but I will be an unapologetic guide. I march him up to the General Post Office (GPO) and force him to admire the bullet holes still in the façade from the 1916 Easter Uprising that—in an overly simplified blog-sized history lesson—was the beginning of the Irish Republic. (Think July 4, 1776 in Philadelphia, only with gunfire and men shortly to become martyrs for the cause of independence.) I never come to Dublin without buying stamps here, even though there’s now a machine outside built into the building façade where you can make your purchases. I like being inside, imagine the noise and the barricades and the smoke and people willing to die for a little freedom.

The G.P.O. always makes me start humming rebel songs.

The G.P.O. always makes me start humming rebel songs.

From there, we head to Trinity College, another of my regular pilgrimages. The campus is beautiful—a walled respite in the heart of the city—but the real reason I’m there is to see the 800 A.D. illustrated gospels depicted in the Book of Kells on display there. Every day, a page is turned, so though I’ve seen the scrolled letters and intricate knotwork that decorate it six or so times, I’m always seeing something different. What is always the same, however, is the disorganized crowd of people around it, all jockeying for a prime spot right in front of it. It’s a frustrating labor of love when it’s just me, but because Z is here, I want to push people out of the way so he can have a few precious minutes admiring the craftsmanship. Finally we, push our way into position and refuse to give up ground until we’re satisfied that we’ve properly admired it.

 

My annoyance with tourists around me (always “they” are tourists, whereas I see myself as having some divine right to be there) disappears as we climb the stairs that spill us out into the Long Room of the Old Library. It smells of books and knowledge and mysteries unsolved. Though it takes my breath away, I normally walk through it quickly after a few cursory photos that simply cannot capture the vastness or atmosphere of the place because I am gift-shop bound. But on this trip, Z and I are not in the market for trinkets, so we linger over each case, read the placards hanging up for the display about myth and folk tale through the ages. We sit on a bench and soak it all in, and it is, no contest, my best ever visit to this library because I am just there and not anticipating our next move or the Book of Kells tea towels and key rings calling out to be purchased downstairs.

The Long Hall

The Long Hall

We do the other things you do when in Dublin: we wander down Grafton Street, which is a shopping area where buskers are often attracting attention with their songs or puppet shows; we try to pick our favorite of the distinctive Georgian doors on the townhouses that surround St. Stephen’s Green; we meander through both St. Stephen’s Green and Iveagh Gardens in the rain, exclaiming about the beauty, the dampness, the half-breed Scottish terrier that defies description in that it is equal parts cute and hideous.  In Iveagh Gardens, we traipse around a hedge maze, though the hedges have not yet grown much higher than our knees, and we are perplexed when we get to the center and find a sundial, which seems a useless thing to have in a shady park in a climate that tends toward cloud. We search for an ATM that isn’t opposed to Z’s bank card to no avail, and then briefly wonder what the rest of our trip might look like without cash in hand. I convince him—as I have convinced others—that’s there’s really no need to go to the Guinness Storehouse because it’s gotten too chic and sophisticated since my first visit, when it still felt kitschy. We eat Mexican, Italian, and a full Irish breakfast. We saunter around the Liffey, stand at the peak of Ha’penny Bridge and watch the night lights dance on the water.

The Liffey

The Liffey

Both nights there, I drag Z through Temple Bar looking for the Ireland v. Zimbabwe rugby poster I had seen in a pub there in 2003 that felt cosmically placed specifically so I’d remain focused on him despite the fact that my confession of love had fallen on his somewhat clogged ears just a month before. I had visions of taking a photo of 2015 Z standing next to the poster as a sort of triumphant conclusion to my earlier, more forlorn and very single trip, but alas, the poster is nowhere to be found lo these twelve years later, and though the most likely reasons are the pub in question has redecorated or I had taken too much drink the night I saw it because it was my half brother’s 21st birthday and only ever imagined it, I’m convinced it was one of those weird synchronicities that only Ireland delivers where you see the thing or meet the person or hear the bit of information that you most need at that very moment. And certainly that poster and a few other of these mystical occurrences on that 2003 trip kept me hot on Z’s trail even though he’d tried to gently put the kibosh on my love.

Temple Bar, where IS that poster?

Temple Bar, where IS that poster?

I regret that we have budgeted only two nights in Dublin. Though Z has professed to like Ireland, I hear an unsaid “so far” in his voice that worries me. As me make our way to Heuston Station with our mountain of luggage so we can head to the western edge of this country I love, I begin to worry again. What if after Dublin, the rest of Ireland will pale in comparison? What if he doesn’t fall in love with Galway’s twisted streets and Spanish Arch and raging Corrib River? What if he sees Connemara as a rocky sort of wasteland? What if he doesn’t like my cousins? What if, what if, what if…?

 

Like the ferry ride two days before, as the train lumbers through the Midlands towards Galway, my anticipation of arriving in my favorite bit of Ireland begins to override my fear that Z will not fall in love. My throat constricts as soon as we are out of the city and the countryside and villages speed past the window. As the fences surrounding the rolling pastures begin to change from wire to stone, as the sheep become more plentiful, as the train stops are names more familiar to me: Ballinasloe, Attymon, Athenry, it seems likely that I will come unhinged with excitement. I will never understand why Ireland affects me this way, and still does after all of these years, but I am glad for it. I want Z to love this place as much as I do, but as we pull alongside the estuary that spills into Galway Bay, I begin to believe that even if he hates it—and why would he anyhow?—my ardor hasn’t dampened. It is still mine and I can love it enough for the pair of us.

Iveagh Gardens

Iveagh Gardens

 

 

 

 

Flashback Friday: Lowered Expectations

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Mac, soon to be usurped by Z.

Mac, soon to be usurped by Z.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

[I’m now wearing a whole different style of jeans with a whole host of other fashion problems, but please remember this was eight years ago and don’t judge me too harshly.]

Last week, a precocious kindergartner at the school where my mother works began a conversation with her teacher in that way you do when you assume the person to whom you are speaking has had exactly the same experience as you. The conversation starter was this: “You know when you poop your pants on purpose and your grandma gets mad….”

This delights me (mostly because I am not the grandmother, I suspect). I love the lack of self-awareness, the belief that of course EVERYONE has done just this thing and understands the negative repercussions.

And so I begin this blog….

You know when you buy a pair of low-rise jeans, even though you know you shouldn’t….”

It is typical of me to finally buy into a fashion trend when it is on its way out, and while I know my body is not suited to it from various aesthetically displeasing experiences in dressing rooms across America, I found a cheap pair of jeans I liked and they just happened to be low-rise, and now I have become one of the those Midwestern-shaped women who spends her day hiking up her pants. . . . while shopping, while teaching, while talking to the Vice Chancellor of Information Technology. I don’t know what I was thinking. I am a child of the 80s and as such jeans belong somewhere right at or slightly above the navel. I am not a mother, but I am most comfortable in Mom Jeans.

And we won’t even speak of the ill-advised underwear I bought to accompany the jeans. No we won’t.

Z is in the air, winging his way toward me for a long Valentine’s weekend, though come Sunday it will seem like the shortest weekend in history. He has already been delayed by a couple of hours, and I’m annoyed that an airline snafu is cutting into my time with him. I’m half-tempted to call Northwest and say, “Work with me people!!!”

As luck would have it, I’m at the Dog House for the rest of the month, babysitting, while my Scottie’s parents are off on a cruise of South America. My fantasies of putting the house to good romantic use have already been dashed. The nice thick white carpet in front of the fireplace that would be good for a picnic–or let’s be honest, making out–has been ripped up and replaced with very trendy hardwood and no area rugs. The hot tub is broken. It’s 3 degrees out, so the sweet walks on our old, friendship-only stomping ground cannot be re-dedicated to this new incarnation of us unless we bundle ourselves up like the little brother in A Christmas Story. I’m beginning to suspect the Scottie Dog is not going to approve of the two of us in a romantic relationship, and I’ve already begun envisioning all the ways he will try to break us up, kind of like Hayley Mills and Hayley Mills did to Brian Keith and their potential new step-mother in The Parent Trap. He’s a good dog, but he is an only child. [In fact, Z gave Mac a very sweet talk about how love was expansive and Z was not replacing Mac in my heart. Mac had none of it and promptly hopped in bed, wedging his way between the two of us with his back side pointed in Z’s general direction.–RGS, 2015]

Also, you know when you order a box of chocolates from England for your sweetheart that depict various acts from The Kama Sutra and then you start to second guess yourself and wonder if what initially seemed funny and mildly naughty is really just in poor taste, reeks of desperation and might make the object of your affection go off you completely? Yeah, well. . . .

That’s it. I am officially lowering my expectations for the weekend.

But I am NOT wearing the low-rise jeans.

Betty MacDonald Had a Farm, E-I-E-I-O

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RGSSketchBook

Mom is visiting us for three weeks, and to celebrate her birthday, Z and I decided to treat her to an overnight on the farm of one of her favorite authors. Betty MacDonald wrote The Egg & I, her memoir of time spent on the Olympic Peninsula raising chickens, in 1945. A movie was made from the book and starred Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert and was followed by a string of “Ma and Pa Kettle” movies that were based on back woods characters Betty described in her book. (She was later sued by people who believed she had based the unflattering but beloved Ma and Pa on them). Though I’ve never actually read this particular book, I grew up feeling like I knew the author. Mom was often reading passages from one of the books and telling me anecdotes from Betty’s life as if they were old friends. (The author died in 1958.) I did, however, read her series of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, which I was convinced were the American answer to Mary Poppins, so I had my own “Betty love” going on.

 

When Z and I stay somewhere, we study the descriptions and photos on VRBO and airbnb as if we are buying the property instead of just staying there for a night or two. I’m pickier than he is and because I’m what they call a “Highly Sensitive Person” I’m affected negatively by ugly things or dirty things or even spaces that seem too much to belong to someone else. My ideal spot to stay is one that looks like one of those little IKEA display rooms, where you can imagine living your life without having to think about how anyone else has maybe trimmed his toenails on the sofa.

 

So when we’re looking for a weekend getaway, Z will often find a spot he thinks looks perfect, but I’ll see a throw pillow with a color scheme that makes my skin crawl or a poster of an eagle on a back wall, and I’ll insist we keep looking. I can’t express this enough: I am not a princess. Really, I’m not. But I have a lot of feelings and other people’s things affect how I feel and when I’m on a little vacation, I don’t want to have to deal with turmoil inside of me just because a chair is scratchy or there is bad lighting. I had to quit going into antique stores a few years ago when I realized I always left depressed and a little obsessed about how wasteful and tacky we are as a people. So online photos of potential digs have to give me a good vibe before I’ll send the payment information.

rgsbettymacdonaldfarm

The Betty MacDonald Farm Bed and Breakfast website has a few beautiful photos, but it’s a little short on specifics. So when Mom and I arrived after a twenty-minute ferry ride from West Seattle, we didn’t know what to expect. Finding it felt like an adventure in itself because we weren’t exactly sure where we were going and other than a very generic “LODGING” sign on the main road with an arrow, Vashon is not a neon-light or billboard sort of place that will direct you anywhere. You “discover” things on the island, which is part of its charm. Other things you will discover: quiet and an easy slowness that would be honked out of existence in Seattle.

 

We were greeted by the owner, Judith, who gave us brief directions up to the third story of the barn and a warning to shut all the doors to keep the animals out, particularly a mother raccoon and her babies who had been trying to find some indoor accommodations. Mom and I hauled our bags up the multiple stairs, and as I was dragging my stuff up, I was thinking, “Oh, geeze. We’re staying in a barn.” Now, it was clear from the website that we’d be staying in a barn, I had specifically made a reservation and paid to stay in a barn, but somehow in Seattle I was imagining something less barn-y. No spiders, no feeling of the hundreds of chickens that used to live there, something in the shape of a barn but with dry-wall and track lighting to illuminate my way. (Before you judge me, please re-familiarize yourself with my camping adventures through the ages here and here.)

 

And then we popped up into the loft and we instantly moved from “barn” to “antique store.” The loft was vast as it was literally the barn loft that went from one end of the three-story barn to the other in a big open space. It held a full kitchen, an antique bed, various gorgeous bits of tables and chests and bookcases, this giant dual-couch construction made out of wood and covered with woolen carpets that looked like it belonged in a bunk house on the range, a wood stove, and a table laid out with Spode for our meals. There was not a horizontal surface that wasn’t covered with books, and the bookcases were all full as well. Good books. Books you wanted to lose yourself in, or at the very least flip through and then order a copy for yourself. The couches faced the wall of windows, which overlooked the six-acre farm, Puget Sound, and the idea of Mt. Rainier that was out there under the cloud cover.

 

rgsmacdonaldloft

 

Initially, I sat on the sofa staring at the view with my lips pursed, uncertain if I should be pleased or disappointed. The bunk house couch was surprisingly comfortable. The view couldn’t have been better and I loved being in this “writerly” space, but there was absolutely no way for my highly sensitive brain to pretend that this place was the blank canvas of a slicker vacation rental cottage. There was absolutely no way to imagine that it was my personal living space because it was so filled with the owner’s belongings. So I kept sitting there, thinking.

 

Mom was excited, soaking up the view from the balcony, as well as a good bit of weather since it was misting a little bit. When she finally had to come in because it got too wet and cold to reasonably sit outside, she started foraging for books, creating a huge stack in front of herself, and then curled up on her section of the bunkhouse sofa and started reading.

 

Imagine Mt. Rainier in the distance. We did.

Imagine Mt. Rainier in the distance. We did.

The books were too hard to resist. My lips un-pursed a little. I got my own stack, and we spent the night reading and talking, and never did get around to watching The Egg & I video that the owner had at the ready should we want to steep ourselves in Betty MacDonald’s life a little more.

 

I’m not sure when exactly the scales in my brain tipped towards “pleased.” The quiet and view certainly worked some magic on me. And the sheets in the little bedroom helped because I’ve never felt anything so soft and crisp (except for the impossibly fluffy towels that were waiting for us in the bathroom, along with robes and African baskets filled with everything we could need to pamper ourselves). Possibly the fact that Mom, who was on the other side of the door sleeping in the main loft got momentarily freaked out because something was on the roof, and then we fell into hysterics like we were at a slumber party when we realized the sound she heard was not the mother raccoon trying to break in but was really just me turning the pages of a Country Living article about Corbin Bernsen’s house.

 

No, I think it happened well before that, when I was looking at all the stacks of books, and all the little nooks and crannies where you could cozy up with a book or a writing pad. It is hard not to hanker for a good reading and writing space, and this one was the best. The place is too unique to turn your nose up at it. Plus, it was clean and our every need was anticipated. By the time I fell asleep I felt like I was spending the night at my grandmother’s house, cozy and well-cared for. And when I woke up the next morning after a perfect night’s sleep on a very comfortable bed, I felt sad that we’d only booked the single night.

 

Mom and I sat on the porch the next morning so entranced with the view and the books we wanted to skim before leaving that we failed to shower and make ourselves breakfast. Showering and eating could happen after check-out time when we’d made our way back to the grit of the city. (Z would be none the wiser about our slovenly choices because he’d still be at work.) We begrudgingly packed up our things, tidied up after ourselves, and trudged down the stairs to the car.

 

The Betty MacDonald Farm B & B

The Betty MacDonald Farm B & B

I made my way over to say hello to the adorable Irish terrier who lives on the property and ran into Judith. I asked her a few questions about the farm and the island, and she started what turned into a fascinating history and horticulture lesson. Mom joined us, and an hour later we knew how to get a start of hydrangea, more about Betty MacDonald’s life, more about the history of the island, the personality of Irish terriers, and the property itself. We even got a peek of the cottage on the ground floor so we could see if we’d like to stay there in the future. (It was cozy too and called to us, including a beautiful old claw-foot tub, perfect for reading that was situated in the bathroom surrounded by windows so you could read, sip some wine, and stare at the Sound and Mt. Rainier. If we ever tried to book a weekend there and couldn’t get the loft, we’d be perfectly happy in the house.) It was the perfect ending to a delightful 24 hours.

 

By the time we climbed into the car and made our way back to the ferry, I was solidly in love with the place and wondering when we could come back. I’ve no doubt that there are people who arrive on the farm and don’t adjust to its quirky self and wish they’d stayed in one of those IKEA-furnished cottages where everything is new and personality-neutral. But for me, I was glad I was able to hit the pause button on my own peculiarities and enjoy the gorgeous peculiarities of the Betty MacDonald Farm B & B. I sincerely doubt that I’ll ever find another place like it, and isn’t that what we should be out here doing? Acquiring unique experiences instead of the cookie-cutter ones?

Betty MacDonald's Underwood

Betty MacDonald’s Underwood

Happy Birthday, Baby

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Yours truly, age one.

Yours truly, age one.

 

Last May when I was in a pet store with my half-brother and his family, my three-year-old niece Bridget and I were perusing a rack of pet-themed cards when she decided she wanted to find her daddy. I was so engrossed in the photos of pug dogs in lipstick and feather boas that I said, “Okay. He’s over by the fish” without once thinking maybe a three-year-old should have an adult escort. A few minutes later my brother came up to me and said, “Um, have you seen my daughter?” Panic. We found her a few seconds later midway to the fish with her face pressed against an aquarium full of gerbils, but I momentarily felt like the world’s worst aunt. So maybe it’s not surprising that I’ve been having such a good time in Indiana that I not only forgot to write a real post, but I also forgot that my baby, The Reluctant Girl Scout, turned one-year-old on the 18th. She’s twelve months old and walking and talking and I totally forgot to commemorate the moment with a snapshot. Oops.

 

I like to think if I had an actual human child I wouldn’t be so forgetful—failing to celebrate its birthday, leaving it in its carrier on the trunk of the car as I drive off down the road towards some exciting destination—but one has to wonder.

 

It’s hard for me to believe that it’s been a year since the Xanax Safari to Zimbabwe inspired me to start this thing. My optimistic self thought I’d post every day and so at the end of the year I’d be sitting on a heap of posts and the whole world would be reading me; my pessimistic self thought the likelihood that I’d forget to post at all once the trip to Africa was over was high. So the reality here that I’m still writing but somewhat less frequently than I meant to is both cause for celebration and regret. Though in my defense, there are a lot of non blog-worthy days when I’m just sitting around the house wondering if there’s a better way to organize the plastic bags under the sink.

 

The three weeks in Indiana have been excellent. The first two weeks we were staying with my beloved Scottie Fairy God Dog, Mac, at his beautiful house while his parents were in Norway. I’ve been staying at this house with Mac and his Scottish predecessors since I was 18, which is to say, a whole lot of years. I love the house, an L-shaped ranch that is situated on the wooded property in such a way that it feels very, very private and remote even though it is in the middle of town and there’s a Famous Recipe Fried Chicken less than a quarter mile away.

RGSpond

When you’ve stayed in someone else’s house for such a big part of your life, it is strange how it gets woven into your fabric as if it were your own. I’m not really talking about ownership of the property or the things inside but the place itself.

 

It’s the perfect house for entertaining, and with Mac’s parents’ blessing, I’ve done some entertaining there. My extended family has been there enough in both sunshine and in shadow that they think of it as my house (and Mac as my dog) and periodically we have discussions about whether, should the owners ever sell, we should pool all of our money together and buy it so we’ll continue to have such a peaceful, lovely place to gather.

 

Over the course of a few decades, it’s remarkable how many life events have unfolded there: affairs of the heart begun and ended, friendships begun and ended, baby showers and wakes, family reunions, phone calls both joyous and devastating, holidays, a trip to the ER after a fall through a screen door in the midst of what seemed like a promising date. (Oh, fortuitous, fortuitous accident.)

 

Lately, whenever I stay there, I’m afraid it will be my last time. Mac is no spring chicken. His parents threaten to move west permanently. I live on the other side of the country now, so my schedule and their vacation schedule aren’t always in sync.

 

Mac on his evening constitutional.

Mac on his evening constitutional.

 

When you are living your life at 18, you think it will always be exactly as it is and you rail against it. You fail to enjoy fully the bounty (of someone else’s gorgeous house, of friends and family, of little dogs and gray cats) in front of you because you yearn for your own adventures, your own houses, in places far away. And then you wake up in the middle of your life and realize that nothing is static and maybe you should appreciate that view more, rub the Scottie dog’s ears a few more times, take a picture of the crane about to lunch on a fish in the pond, be grateful for each visit with friends, each dinner with family, any chance you get to be in a place you love. The birthdays that come unbidden.

 

RGScrane

 

Flashback Friday: Little Brownstone on the Prairie

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rgsroom

[Oh, the irony of this post from eight years ago, particularly when bumped against the one from earlier this week.]

 15 July 2006

Last night I was feeling “troubled” about my silly life as I went to sleep, which is a fairly frequent occurrence. Usually the troubledness has to do with my age, my living situation, my marriage/partner/dating and motherhood status. Other things get factored in based on the latest magazine article I’ve read or Dateline exclusive I’ve watched. Last night, after messing with a picture shelf my mother and I were hanging above my desk and trying to figure out which of my 20 works of art I was going to hang on the little hunk of wall that is left in my room, I was feeling particularly freaky. I have friends who are bitter because their houses aren’t brand new and don’t have granite countertops or swimming pools or room for a home office, but all of them have managed to get more than four walls to hang things on.

 

This isn’t about some people being luckier or having more than me. I know if I wanted to make it a priority I could maybe get myself eight walls, so I’m not talking about jealousy here. If I wanted to give up the frequent flying and the handmade furniture and the Sundance catalog jewelry, I could buy a little house and hopefully have enough money left over to pay a boy (preferably a shirtless one) to come and do things for me like hang picture shelves. I could.

Anyhow, I woke up this morning, looked at all my stuffed-full bookshelves and realized, I’m living in a brownstone circa 1945. I always imagined living a writer’s life in a big city where I couldn’t afford anything but a bedsit so all of my worldly possessions would be in the one room, and for reasons that are unclear, I always imagined doing this in the post war era. And now I realize that’s what I’ve got. Only without the city, without radiators (thank you, Jesus), without loud neighbors, and without a book contract. I AM Helene Hanff. I am whatever the bookish sister’s name was in My Sister Eileen. I just can’t go walk my dog in Central Park (partly because I don’t have my own dog), and I still have not developed a taste for coffee and cigarettes, both of which figure prominently into my 1945 brownstone fantasy.

Also, in this fantasy, I have a throaty laugh and I know how to dance.

I really am amazed by people who figure out how to settle into a place. At almost 40, I’m still trying on locations for size. For instance, I now know I do not want to live in Aspen, even if I do become a billionaire. In fact, you can scratch ‘anywhere in Colorado’ and ‘the Rockies’ right off the list of possibilities. It’s gorgeous there. The quality of life is good. I understand the fervor of John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High, but it is not my place in this world. There is too much sun and too many people happy to be outdoors, risking their lives on guardrail-less roads, in treacherous rapids, and while battling wildfires.

While I was at Aspen Summer Words, my friend Heather drove me up Independence Pass so I could see the Continental Divide. On the way up I told her how beautiful the landscape was and she said, “I know. When I see these mountains my heart just opens right up.” My heart wasn’t opening–not for those mountains–but I liked the emotion with which she spoke. It’s how I feel about the West of Ireland, Chicago, East Tennessee, London. There are places you belong and places you don’t belong and I live in fear that I’ll accidentally end up in a place where I don’t belong, where my heart not only won’t open up but instead will seize because of the ugliness or inhospitably of the people or landscape. For instance, the two hours I was waiting for my return flight from Phoenix, I kept thinking, “This is a dead place. People aren’t supposed to live here.” Yet people do. And some people love it. My grandparents loved it. But they sure didn’t pass those genes down to me. (Nor the genes that would make camping seem like a good idea, for that matter. Nor the ones that would make me good with money or able to cook.)

When I figure out how to get myself to 1940s Manhattan, I’ll let you know.

Flashback Friday Night: Snakes I Have Loathed

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Horrible, Scottie-eating snake.

Scottie-eating snake. A cobra, perhaps? A python? Something horrible.

(Earlier today, I was forced to stare at a metaphorical snake and my blood ran cold. Fortunately, it wasn’t feeling any animosity toward me and so slithered away to sun itself on a rock somewhere. Even so, this seemed a timely post from eight years ago when I was staying at Mac the Scottie Wonder Dog’s house.)

 

15 June 2006

I hate snakes. Call it irrational, girly, predictable, whatever you want, but I  think all snakes should die, or, when I’m in a more goodwill-toward-all sort of mood, then I would be satisfied if they were all quarantined on an island somewhere so I could easily avoid it. I don’t feel this way about spiders or mice–in fact, I regularly spring the mouse traps set at the Dog House because it seems like bad, bad karma to eighty-six something so cute who is just out there trying to make a living like the rest of us.

But snakes are a different story and I’m not even from a part of the world where they are poisonous.

Several years ago I had a grandmotherly student who was not a native speaker of English. I was fond of her despite how difficult her papers were to decipher. Aside from the ESL issues, her thoughts often seemed jumbled and it was difficult to figure out how the ideas were connected. She once wrote a paper in which she talked frequently about “sneaks.”  For an evening, I tried to piece together what she really wanted her paper to be about. I pictured people who were out to get her, sneaking around her neighborhood, maybe painting racial epithets on her garage door or rifling through her garbage in the early-morning hours, co-workers sneaking behind her back and trying to make her life difficult. I wondered briefly if perhaps her husband had been sneaking around on her but she was afraid to write boldy about such a personal betrayal and so made her essay vague in order to protect herself.

After the third read-thru, it dawned on me that “sneaks” were really SNAKES. It was, perhaps, the strongest paper she ever wrote for the class, her hatred of snakes seemed to help her unify her thoughts.

Today, I let Mac out and two seconds later heard this awful caterwauling on the kitchen deck. I looked out in time to see a giant snake coiled up and ready to lunge at my sweet Scottie. Mac has a ferocious bark and tenacious spirit, and while both of these things should have scared the snake off, neither did. I called the dog in but the snake then glared at us through the patio door, still coiled and ready to strike. He opened his mouth, wide, to show us what he was made of. Mac whimpered, desperate to tear into this invader. I poked at the glass and made noises meant to scare it off, but the snake just stared at me, sitting on its snake-haunches, on the verge of attack. It didn’t leave until Mac and I walked away from the window and let it “win.” I haven’t let the dog out since.

(And yes, I did have to go through that paragraph and make it gender neutral because I always think of snakes as “he.”)

There are a lot of fantastical things in the Bible–people turning to pillars of salt, burning bushes, walking on water–but I’ve never had a problem with believing any of it. Today, though, I’m thinking the whole Garden of Eden story is a real crock. What self-respecting woman would talk to a snake? I just don’t think it would happen. They are all side-windy and slithery and awful. I can see how Eve might have been hoodwinked by a honey-tongued snake-like fruit salesman, whispering in her ear and telling her that his apples were better than anyone else’s while he twirled his moustahce, but an actual, honest-to-goodness snake? I don’t think so. I like to think the mother-of-us-all would have been cleverer and looked for a way to avoid a serpent confrontation.

At school, I regularly have students–almost always female, usually those with tattoos of pentagrams who smell of patchouli–who insist that snakes are wonderful, loving pets, but I never believe them. You can’t curl up with a snake and watch old Frasier reruns, like the Scottie Dog and I did last night. What you can do with a pet snake is take it out of its aquarium in an attempt to make guests uncomfortable. That’s about it. I’ve always thought how awful it was that cats were regularly murdered in medieval times (and beyond) because they were associated with witchcraft. How ignorant and heartless, I’d think. But snakes? If there were an anti-snake mob out there with the torches and  zeal? I’d probably join in, shouting and shaking a cudgel, ready to make the neighborhood safer.

Except for the part where I might actually have to face one of the sneaks. Ugh.

 

Now is the Springtime of Our Discontent: A Dog Story

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RGSMac

 

Seattle Beth always has big, big plans for Indiana Beth. When she’s in Seattle, she makes lists of all the people she will see and the boxes she will rifle through in her parents’ attic and the epiphanies she will have while she is in her natural habitat. But Indiana Beth always has other ideas. Indiana Beth mostly wants to sit around staring out the window, chatting with her family, reading books that got left behind in the Great Move. Inexplicably, on this trip, Indiana Beth has been obsessively doing jigsaw puzzles on her iPad. Like an old person.

 

Seattle Beth is disappointed in Indiana Beth.

 

Frankly, I’m disappointed in both of them: the one for not realizing the limitations and proclivities and the other for being so incredibly lazy.

 

I was supposed to fly back to Z on Tuesday, but had an unwelcome 24-hour bug that made air travel seem like a bad idea. I was disappointed not to see Z on schedule and disappointed not to get to claim the first class seat to which I’d been upgraded. But I’m never sad to spend more time at home. Luckily, Mom has taken over my pet sitting gigs with Mac the Wonder Scottie, and so the bonus days in Richmond were spent with him at his gorgeous house. What’s a little stomach discomfort when you get to sit on a screened porch staring at a pond and woods with a little Scottish Terrier under your chair?

 

As soon as I realized that I needed to skip the flight and rebooked for three days later, Seattle Beth started making plans again. Maybe I could still clean out a closet, write a book proposal, post a blog a day, go on hour long walks of a vigorous nature, meditate, do yoga, find inner peace, come up with an idea for world peace.

 

It’s a lot to accomplish in three days, especially when there is a lovely view and a porch.

 

Mac is always initially excited to see me. He does his happy dance and his special growl-talk and we’re both overjoyed to be together again, and so we love on each other and then fight over his scruffy hedgehog. I’ve been watching him since he was a puppy and now he has a beard that makes him look like a wizard, so it is safe to say we know each other well. I know that if I say “Get the monkeys” when I open the door to let him out, he will go tearing into the yard set on chasing away the imaginary beasts even though he should know by now that there are no monkeys. (Mac hates monkeys even though he’s yet to come face to face with one.) He should also know that I am not what you’d call an energetic person.

 

Like Seattle Beth, he becomes discontent, and I can only assume that the source of this discontentment is me. I read too much. I sit and stare too much. Mom and I talk too long about things like the influx of buzzards. Finally, he sighs and turns his back on the pair of us and has a nap. I’d kind of like to teach him to play Words with Friends to take some of the pressure off of me. I’m not a good entertainment director. Once you have the walk and the hedgehog tug-of-war and the meal and the snacks, what else is there really? I’ve long been convinced that if I could show him how to read, he’d be so much more content.

 

Other sources of discontentment on this my last day in Indiana: a Ku Klux Klan rally in neighboring Centerville. I’m horrified and disgusted. And frankly, Mac is too. He seems to have a strong desire to sneak into the rally and tug white sheets off of participants, exposing them for the cowards and fools that they are. Maybe this explains the buzzard problem.

Travel Styles

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My modus operandi when traveling for all of my adult life has been to pack as much as possible into a day. I study guidebooks and websites and make lists of the “must sees” and map out a course of action. I’m not rigid, or anything, but I’m always imagining what is just around the bend that I can observe. The most famous of these pack-as-much-as-you-can-into-a-single-day excursions was on the occasion of my mother’s 60th birthday when we went to New York City a few years ago, and we wanted to get as much of the city explored during our few days there.

On our last afternoon in New York, it was pouring with rain but we had just enough time to go into the MoMA before it closed. We both desperately needed to go back to the hotel and put our feet up because we’d started early and covered a lot of ground. But the MoMA? How could we not go? So we did, and we saw a lot of gorgeous and thought-provoking art, and I remember being there probably better than I remember any other art museum I’ve ever been in because I was in agony. If I’d been allowed, I would have curled up in a fetal position in the room with all the Joseph Cornell boxes and stared at them until closing time. By the time we left the city, Mom’s feet were bruised and raw and she hobbled through the airport like she was 90. She had to call in sick for two days because she couldn’t move. She was happy and had 8 million photos to document everything we saw and did, but I felt like a very bad daughter for putting my greedy need to see sites ahead of Mom’s well-being (and my own body’s protestations).

While Z and I were in Vancouver last Saturday, a large family was behind us, kind of pushing us along the sidewalk as we walked from our Sky Train station down to the spot where we could pick up the ferry for Granville Island. A couple of the people in the group broke free and moved quickly ahead of us, darting in and out of pedestrians, and one of the younger members of the family behind us said, “Why does Mom have us on a forced march?” A sibling, perhaps, said, “We’re running out of time in the city and she has things to do.”

It struck me how in just a few short years—and whether it is being married to Z or the icy hands of middle age, I cannot say—my traveling style has altered. Before, if there were 14 sites to see, I would, by golly, see them all in a single day even if I were miserable by the end of it. Z is not that kind of traveller. If I had to choose a single word to describe him, in this regard, I would say Z is content. He doesn’t want to get up early, he has no delusions about how his life will be better if he gets to see x, y, and z, and mostly he just wants to have fun. When the sight-seeing ceases to be fun, he’s ready to head back to the hotel, and he never has regrets about what he might have missed.

Oh, to be Z.

My body may be begging me for a rest and I may be snappish because of excessive tourism, but mentally, it goes against my grain not to do as much of everything as I possibly can. When I was younger and read “I Shall Not Pass This Way Again” by Stephen Grellet, I failed to pick up on how the poem was about being kind and helpful to those whose path crosses yours and instead I thought it was some sort of travel manifesto. I may never be here again, so I better do it all. But Z is laid back. He’s not ticking anything off a list. He’s having a good time, hoping for a nice snack, and just generally more content.  He has the Zen quality of Pooh Bear traveling, while I, instead, have a combined personality of Rabbit, Owl, and Eeyore. When I start making a huge “to see” list, he reels me in and reminds me that he likes to do one or two things only. So I push him to do more and he pushes me to do less, and we end up somewhere in the middle. I don’t put up much of an argument when he declares he’s ready to head back to the hotel anymore because I’m beginning to understand the merits of leisurely.

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So our two nights in British Columbia were not jam-packed. We stayed in New Westminter at Inn at the Quay, and had a room overlooking the Fraser. It’s a working river, so it wasn’t idyllic, but it was peaceful and we enjoyed the view until later in the evenings when the fog swallowed it whole.

Other things the fog swallowed: the mountains. What I remember from my only other trip to Vancouver several years ago was the shock of such beautiful mountains being so close to a city. The views were gorgeous. On this visit, we could have been in Kansas City if there was a lot of waterfront there. Still, lovely though.

In some ways, I’d remembered B.C. and Canada in general as more perfect than it actually is. For instance, I’d told Z how amazed he would be by how much cleaner it was than Seattle, which ended up being completely untrue. I’ve never nearly stepped in so much dog crap in my life. (The upside: loads of dogs for me to oogle, one of my favorite past times.) There was litter. Some areas were sketchier than I remembered. None of it was bad, certainly none of it was worse than what we see every day in Seattle, but it wasn’t the utopia I’d remembered, which was a good realization for someone like me to have; I always think somewhere else is better than wherever I am.

In New Westminster, we explored their revitalized waterfront, sampled some of the wares at the Rivermarket, which was right next to our hotel. At the market, on the first or “hungry” floor, you could devour a variety of local foods, and on the second or “curious” floor you could take classes, including learning a few tricks at the drop-in circus school. (We ate food but did not learn the trapeze, fyi).

We were right across the street from the Sky Train—fully automated and mostly elevated—into Vancouver. It reminded me more of the Chicago El and less of Seattle’s light rail. It was clean and quick and I enjoyed peering into the apartments and condos of people as we whizzed by to see how they decorated.

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On my last trip, I’d never made it to Granville Island, though several people had suggested it, so we decided this should be our destination.  I’d read about it, so knew what to expect, but poor Z was picturing a leisurely ferry ride to a wooded island like Bainbridge, instead of the half a minute Aquabus ride to what felt like the other side of False Creek. He was happy when we disembarked, however, and made our way to the public market. It was reminiscent of Pike Market (particularly in the way I got crabby after about ten minutes because there were entirely too many people there), but had more food stalls. Z was particularly pleased with the Cornish Pasty he had, and I, because I eat like a picky four year old, had spaghetti and meatballs. Delicious, but not very adventurous. (This will never turn into a Foodie blog—sorry to disappoint you.) We walked around the island for a while, investigating the artisans’ wares in Railspur Alley, and tried to investigate the little bookstore and stationery store, both of which looked delightful but were way too crowded for it to be enjoyable. Then we hopped on the Aquabus and made our way back downtown.  On the walk, we visited the museum store (and loo) at the art museum, where it was nearly closing time. The building looks lovely, even if we didn’t make it in to see the collection. We continued our walk, peering into the Fairmount Hotel, where I hoped to see the resident yellow Lab, whom I met last time I was in town, and then on to the waterfront to try to find a view through the fog.

Eventually we arrived in Gastown. It was a particular favorite of mine, before I moved to Seattle and was introduced to Pioneer Square. The two places remind me a lot of each other: both have roots to the oldest part of the towns’ histories, both fell on hard times and became “skid row”, both were on the verge of being demolished when some forward thinking person realized the value, both for history’s and tourism’s sake, and the areas were saved and revitalized. Our biggest Gastown disappointment is that we’d stuffed ourselves so full on Granville Island we weren’t ready to eat dinner yet. It niggled at me a little that we were headed back to the hotel when everyone else was just headed out for the evening, but if I’m completely honest, I was looking forward to the quiet, un-crowded hotel and foggy view.

On Sunday, before heading home, we had lunch at the Dubliner Pub, which is housed in what used to be part of the penitentiary. It was cozier than you might imagine and the brunch there was delicious. We may have stopped at the Hard Rock casino for a flutter before directing the car towards the border, and we may have cleared $33 of the bizarrely plastic-y and see-through-y Canadian dollars, which we have tucked away for our next trip north.

Are there other things on our list to see in Vancouver like the observatory or Dr. Sun Yat Sen Garden (or the neighboring free park) or the scenery  we’ve been promised on the drive to Whistler? Um, yeah. But for our inaugural trip, we were content. And it didn’t hurt that we made it home just in time to see the Seahawks make it into the Super Bowl.

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The Best Dog’s Birthday

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Mac, the Scottish Terrier

Mac, the Scottish Terrier

It seems like a real oversight on my part that you all have met Skampy but you haven’t met Mac.

 

This is Mac. Today is his birthday. He’s twelve. He’s in California, living it up with his parents, where he spends half the year sunning himself and dreaming about the squirrels that are running rampant in his own backyard back in Richmond. (You may remember him because he got a shout out when I was in Zimbabwe. Then, it seemed like maybe he was terribly, terribly sick, but then miraculously, he wasn’t and there was much jubilation in America and Zimbabwe.) Today, he’s eating some doggy version of cake two states away from me, and we’re all  happy about that. The world is a better place with Mac in it.

 

He is my Fairy God Dog. Probably it is weird to be so attached to a dog that doesn’t technically belong to you, but too bad. He feels like mine, and when I run into other Scotties here in Seattle and talk to their owners, I say, “I have a Scottie back home in Indiana,” and I don’t even feel like a liar. He was the Best Dog in our wedding, and it’s hard for me to imagine he’s not the best dog anywhere. He and I are pretty happy when we get to spend time together.

 

His parents have had a series of Scottish terriers that I’ve been babysitting at their gorgeous home since I was 18. They also had a quirky, incontinent cat that I liked a lot. (Perhaps best not to speak of the pair of lizards that were in my charge one year there.) Mac’s predecessor, Bailey, was the sort of dog who would have been a real reader if he’d only had an index finger to flip pages with, and while he’d sit on the patio regarding the flowers, I convinced myself that if he were a man, he’d be my soul mate. (It is worth noting, Z does have many Bailey-esque qualities.) When Bailey died, I was sure I could love no other dog more than I loved him. What would the point be?

 

But then a few years later, his parents called me to see if I was up for a challenge. They had just found a Scottie puppy they were keen on, but they were about to set off on their travels for several weeks, and the only way they could get this puppy was if I agreed to stay with him. It would be a lot of work, they said, so they’d understand if I didn’t want to. I’d never had a puppy under my care, I knew nothing about helping to train a dog, and I was a little nervous at the prospect. But there was really no answer I could give but “yes.” Have you ever seen a Scottie puppy? He was adorable, there in the underbrush, hiking his leg and tipping over because he didn’t yet have his balance, and I was pretty much in love with him the first time we met.

 

He ate one of my best bras within the first two days I was there. He devoured an entire, unopened bag of beef jerky and then expected praise for being so clever at having figured out how to open it with his little puppy teeth. He’d regularly dart out of the house and into the woods, terrifying me because he’d refuse to come back when called, and then would dash back into the house in his own good time, covered from tip to tail in burrs. He’d lie still while I pulled the burrs from his fur, wagging his tail as if this too was the most fun ever. How could I be mad?

 

I could regale you pages of Mac stories, but I know that might be tedious for you. Whenever I am with him, he keeps an elaborate and entertaining journal about his exploits, so maybe you’ll read about those one day.  (I’m ashamed to admit that as soon as I write an entry, I forget that he didn’t pen it himself, so when I go back through and read it months or years later, I’m amused by how clever he is and what a way with words he has.) He’s terribly smart and he has a lot to say. He’s also superb at getting his message across even when I’m not transcribing for him. For example, I once gave him a bowl of water from my parents’ tap. They live in the country and the water is good but extra irony. I settled down in the swing to sip my bottle of Aquafina. Mac sniffed his bowl and then looked at me pointedly. Then at my bottle of Aquafina. Then back to his bowl. We did three rounds of this before I finally cried uncle, upended his bowl, and gave him half of my bottled water, which he lapped up happily.

 

He’s very persuasive. And squirrels live in fear of him.

 

Since I’m making confessions, it’s probably worth a mention that last year I flew home to Indiana expressly to see Mac because I missed him. And this summer, when my mother was babysitting him and she and I were talking on the phone, I heard him bark and I almost burst into tears because it was so good to hear his voice and I was missing him fiercely. You can’t really call a dog on the phone and have anything akin to a conversation.

 

So this one is to you, Mac. Tell your parents you want to see the Space Needle. And me. (And don’t tell Z, but I’ve already googled the distance between the address where you are wintering and the conference hotel where we’ll be in Anaheim next month. Maybe I can get you some dog-sized mouse ears.)